How to Change the World

How miniscule becomes gigantic and changes the world

Posted May 13, 2013

I’d love to change the world, to make the world a better place. But mostly I feel completely powerless. I’m not an important person. I don’t make big political decisions. My decisions and behaviors don’t feel earth-shattering. So how can I turn my miniscule contributions into something gigantic?

My impact every day is miniscule at best. My decisions seem so small that they often feel meaningless. For example, I am a bicycle commuter. I like to ride my bike and my commute is part of my exercise routine. As a bike commuter, I’d like to think that I’m making the world a better place. But my daily bike rides are miniscule contributions. My round trip is about 12 miles, saving less than ½ gallon of gas. That’s not much of a reduction in pollution.

The problem is often seeing the impact we have even in the tiny things we do. Focusing on the one tiny trip is a classic failure in judgment and decision making. This failure means that we can miss and undervalue our real contributions.

We frequently base our judgments and decisions on things that come to mind easily. This judgment bias is called the availability heuristic. The thoughts that are easily available are the ones that guide out decisions, even when that isn’t very valuable information. When I think about how my bike commutes are changing the world, I think about my most recent 12 mile ride that saved a fraction of a gallon of gas and a miniscule amount of pollution. That ride is next to nothing. I could easily conclude that I’m having no impact. Ride if I enjoy it, but really I’m making no meaningful difference. It’s hopeless.

But thinking about that one recent ride misses the overall impact. One aspect of the availability heuristic is that we don’t search for information that doesn’t come to mind easily. All those little things add up, often into tremendous things. But the addition of all those little things doesn’t come to mind very easily. Luckily for me, someone else is tracking the information for me and making it easier for me to see and think about. In my community there is a group that encourages alternative transportation (bike, bus, walk, rideshare). I can sign in and record my daily commutes with Smart Trips. Since I started recording my commutes last October, I’ve made 100 of my commutes on my bike (way more than ½ my commutes).

My miniscule daily contributions add up. According to Smart Trips, my daily rides have saved approximately 50 gallons of gas, 200 dollars, and nearly 1000 pounds of carbon dioxide. (I’ve burned more than 40,000 calories, and the web site says that’s 110 cupcakes!) Although I’ve been a bike commuter for years, I only recently started recording my trips. So multiply those numbers by 20 years of commuting by bike. My gas, money, and pollution savings are actually gigantic, not miniscule. But because of the availability heuristic, these gigantic contributions don’t come to mind easily. I would have to do math to figure out my contributions. And who wants to do the math? Thankfully the Smart Trips web site does that math for me.

I’m also not alone as an alternative commuter. Many people in my community use alternative transportation. Over 15,000 of my community neighbors have recorded some of trips on the web site since Smart Trips set up shop 7 years ago. The numbers? Over 2.6 million trips by alternative transportation, more than 40 million miles, saving 1.7 million gallons of gas, 6.5 million dollars, and 16,500 tons of carbon dioxide. Wow. All of that, one miniscule little, utterly meaningless daily alternative commute at a time. That’s changing the world.

We also create another change by our individual miniscule behaviors: We make it easier for others to do things too. When we use alternative transportation, others see these and may try similar changes. Good behaviors have a tendency to snowball (of course, bad ones do too).

So how do you change the world? By making small, apparently miniscule contributions. Ride a bike and save the world. Change your light bulbs and slow the rate of global warming. Switch to a more fuel efficient car and help lower the cost of gas. Your small actions add up, even when you feel powerless. You also help create a world that encourages other to make similar changes.

I’m posting this during May, which is bike to school and work month. Friday is bike to school and work day. Remember that if you think about your contributions, you may only see and think about something that seems miniscule. But try focusing on the power of big numbers. Lots of small changes can snowball into something big. We change the world through tiny daily decisions.